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Neal Katyal On Ukraine Investigation


What do we make of President Trump's involvement in Ukraine now that we know what U.S. diplomats thought about it at the time? House investigators have released six pages of text messages from earlier this year. They detail discussions between diplomats facing demands from President Trump. The president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, were pushing Ukraine to investigate one of the president's political rivals, Joe Biden. In these text messages, we learn more of what was at stake for Ukraine.

It's already known that the United States was withholding military aid at the same time that President Trump was requesting this investigation. One diplomat says it was, quote, "crazy to link security assistance to help with a political campaign," although another diplomat insisted there was no quid pro quo. Now we know that a White House meeting was also at stake on the very day that President Trump called Ukraine's president in July. A diplomat said that once President Zelenskiy's agreement to an investigation was made, quote, "we will nail down a date for a visit to Washington."

Those reading the messages this morning include Neal Katyal, who was acting solicitor general in the Obama administration. Good morning, sir.

NEAL KATYAL: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do these text messages tell you?

KATYAL: Well, I think there's two big points in the text messages. One is some text messages from the State Department showing, effectively, that Trump was seeking campaign help from the Ukrainians and Ambassador Bill Taylor saying, quote, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with the political campaign." And only some hours later is there some sort of very highly scripted response and a desire to get off of text messages and get on the phone. So that's the first thing.

The second is some revelations that two State Department officials were drafting a new statement - a statement for the new Ukrainian president committing the country of Ukraine to investigate Biden and most importantly, that that statement wasn't just drafted by two ambassadors - two State Department officials, but also by Rudy Giuliani. Politico's reporting that he's the one who supplied the key language.

This is just, Steve, the first couple of days of the investigation. I mean, this investigation is very, very fresh. And already there's a lot of very, very damaging information. In President Trump's hold defense last week - this is hearsay, the whistleblower's not true, all this, it's fallen - it's already fallen apart. It's - you know, everything the whistleblower said has been corroborated by these messages so far...

INSKEEP: Does it in some way add to or change the impression we already had, though, from the rough notes - the rough transcript of the president's phone call with Ukraine's president on July 25?

KATYAL: Right. I think it adds a lot of color to it because there, you know, I think, you know, the bottom of Page 2 and the top of Page 3 of that rough transcript really does outline something pretty horrible - the president seeking, effectively, campaign help from the Ukrainian president.

But now we see that this wasn't just, like, you know, something that you have to read into the White House memo. It wasn't even a transcript. We're still waiting on the transcript. But now we are learning that senior State Department officials had exactly these concerns that the whistleblower had.

And that's why I think you see the president moving from, oh, I didn't do it and stuff like that to basically saying, well, OK. I did it, it's not illegal - and even going so far yesterday at the White House to say, overtly, hey, I'm going to now ask for help from China to investigate Biden...

INSKEEP: Let's listen actually to a little bit of the president speaking yesterday because this is, in fact, something that he said in front of the television cameras. Let's listen to that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.

INSKEEP: He also, in public, repeated his demand for an investigation of the Bidens in Ukraine. Is the president in any way on more stable legal ground because he's now doing this overtly in public on television rather than secretly in a phone call?

KATYAL: No, not at all. I mean - and much less. I mean, if you commit a murder overtly in the street, you're just as guilty as if you do it behind closed doors. So there's absolutely no legal piece to this that will help him. And I think we really - Steve, there's kind of four matrices to think about. There's -

was a crime committed? And now it looks like, yeah, it looks like it may have been actually a formal crime - trying to solicit things of value for your campaign. The second is, is this is an impeachable offense? And I think this is the quintessential definition to our founders of what is impeachable. But the third is politically, you know, will the Republicans have the courage to actually, you know, defend the Constitution and do what's right here and required by our founders?

But the fourth is historical. I mean, even if the president skates by somehow because of his political muscle, I think his fate as a president is sealed by the release of these - the White House memo last week and now these text messages and revelations yesterday. This is a guy who went and sought aid - now overtly from one of our chief enemies, China - in order to advance his campaign and his political ends.


KATYAL: That's the definition of, I think, a failed presidency.

INSKEEP: I want to mention two things very quickly. One, you said the president was seeking things of value. The Justice Department looked into that and concluded otherwise, but I see you have a different conclusion. One other thing I do want to ask about, though, and that is the quid pro quo. One of the text messages says there was no quid pro quo. Can the president get out of that accusation simply because he did not literally use the phrase quid pro quo?

KATYAL: Nobody uses the phrase literally, but actually the text messages show that other folks thought there was a quid pro quo in the administration, including Trump's own State Department. So it's not going to help them. And as far as a thing of value, as I said in The New York Times, just because you can't quantify it, doesn't mean it's not a thing of value. It undoubtedly is.

INSKEEP: Neal Katyal was acting solicitor general in the Obama administration. Thank you so much.

KATYAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.